Getting born is trickier than Spanky ever imagined.
Yearning for life, Spanky chooses Nina, a flighty actress just out of college, and Rick, a sax player who changes tires to get by, to be his parents. Only Nina seems to be hung up on her gay guy friend Pablo, and Nina’s best girlfriend Dink is hung up her! Will Nina and Rick get it together in time to conceive Spanky before he evaporates? And if this hurdle gets crossed, will they choose to keep him? If so, will they and their quarreling families learn to like him?
There’s not much Spanky can do but watch from afar while his fate plays out—and if that’s not scary enough—something else happens that makes Spanky have to completely reevaluate his expectations. He’s a girl!
A poignant, hilarious, unforgettable look at life, love, gender, and the essence of what makes us who we are.
Crossing over: I had no idea it was going to be this hard.
Makes these last eight and a half months of cell splitting seem like nothing more than playing with LEGOs.
Two hearts, Mom’s and mine.
I’m going to miss this.
Uh-oh! Here we go! Another push!
The muscles in Mom’s abdomen are squeezing me. Tighter. Tighter. She’s grunting. I pull in my arms and legs, torpedo-like… Get ready, get set…
Nothing. Still here.
I don’t want to cross over until I figure out what I’m supposed to do once I get there. I know it’s silly for me to care; I won’t remember anyway. The minute I push through, the Forgetting will kick in. But I want my life to have meaning! I want to be loved! I want to change the world!
I’ll have to use these last minutes to scour the incidents that got me this far—while I can still remember them. Maybe some nugget from the past will give me the courage to sever ties with my old pal, Umbilicus.
My first thought is Why Me? Nobody asked me if I wanted to become a Floating Soul, to be yanked from my cozy blanket of absolute awareness. Maybe I didn’t want to become a Me. Maybe I was happy as I was: blended into the wonderful, chaotic, alphabet soup of The Known.
The fact that I’m whining indicates there’s no going back. I’m already stuck with a personality—and my first assignment: choosing parents. They’ll provide me the body I need to negotiate my way through the Land of Forgetting. When it comes time for me to evaporate back, The Known will absorb everything I’ve learned and use it to evolve. This is how The Known recreates itself. It drips you out like a saturated rain cloud, then, after It’s satisfied you’ve done everything you’re going to do, It evaporates you back. Only Floating Souls have a bit more to do between dripping out and evaporating than loll around making puddles. We have destinies to fulfill.
I comb the paltry information I’ve been sent down with, and believe me, there’s not much. Compared to the massive archives of The Known, it’s like a small suitcase a frenzied mother might throw together for a departing child. But what’s in it can make or break my chances at happiness. And what’s left out…well, the future, for one thing. Besides that, don’t even get me started.
I flip through something I can only describe as a traveler’s pamphlet of current fads and social faux pas while simultaneously riffling through the personality traits I’ve been assigned—patience not being one of them—when I’m suddenly hijacked by The Yearn. It’s programmed into us Floating Souls so we don’t just waft around interminably trying to make up our minds. Once The Yearn takes control, all lofty thoughts about destiny disintegrate.
I’ve got to find a way to start splitting some cells!
I take a look around. Where am I?
A dimly lit alley. Must be The Known’s idea of a joke. There’s no one here. Just a Dumpster next to an old, ivy-covered brick building. Granted, it’s a relatively affluent neighborhood, which is a relief. I’ve heard horror stories about Floating Souls being dripped into germinfested, poverty-stricken hovels.
A streetlight from a nearby parking lot casts long shadows, enabling me to make out a wooden door built into the brick building. It’s in need of a paint job and has a sign tacked to it that reads: CAST AND CREW ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT! Intriguing. I’m about to slip inside when I notice someone crouched in the shadow of the Dumpster. Two someones, actually. Possible parents? I zoom in for a closer inspection. Two young men smoking a mind-altering weed. So much for finding my ticket into life. I need an XX and XY to get the job done. I head on to the stage door, but something stops me. There’s something alluring about one of the two men that I can’t dismiss. Dad? I think tentatively. The fellow I’m interested in has a cool goatee and a T-shirt with the words The Doors printed on the front. But it’s his hands that fascinate me. They’re callused, clean, and have long, tapered fingers; perfect for teaching a kid how to play ball in the backyard.
I need to be super careful about my choice in dads. A kid needs a good father figure; that’s one of the things I’m sure of.
Or think I am.
This having feelings and opinions is new to me. Can I trust them?
But I’m so drawn to this guy with the caring, protective hands. I just know I’m supposed to be his.
Then I think about him smoking his weed in a dark alley.
Is he really Dad material?
Time for a background check. Zipping through his memory bank, I sift out these essential facts:
Name: Rick Hale
Birth order: Only child of a doting mother and stern father
Age: Twenty-one years old
Education: B.A. in music; Instrument: saxophone
Employment: Tire changer
Residence: Still lives with parents
Marital status: Single
I’m on the verge of dismissing him as a loser when I’m reminded of a warning I was issued by a returning Floating Soul who’d done her time on Earth: Don’t let assumptions and opinions pull you from your instincts. At the time, I was sure I’d be above this simple misstep; now, I’m not so cocky. Assumptions and opinions have already begun attaching to me like barnacles—and they make things so confusing! Are my fears about alleyways, single musicians, and guys who still live at home with their parents instincts or opinions?
I zoom in on Howie, the muscular fellow Rick’s hanging with, for a closer look. He’s got really short hair and a ton of bottled-up rage. What is Rick doing associating with a guy like him?
Scanning Rick’s memory, I find a vision of Rick and Howie jamming in a basement apartment, but Howie doesn’t look scary in the memory. He looks happy-go-lucky in his worn jeans, a fringy vest with no shirt, and bare feet. He’s slumped back in a beanbag chair, an electric guitar cradled in his lap, riffing off a smooth sax melody provided by my Rick. Just the kind of guy I want to be when I—
Whoa. I’m going to be a boy. How cool is that?
I’ll be just like Rick when he shuts his eyes to sustain a note, or Howie when his fingers dance up and down the frets of his guitar— happy, content, grinning when we get the notes just right. Being a guy is going to be awesome!
So what’s with this new muscular Howie with the short, short hair? He’s completely different from the guy in the memory. His face is all hard angles, and he’s constantly glancing around as if something might leap out from behind a wall.
It doesn’t take long to find out. The events dominate his brain. Two planes smashing into a gigantic tower full of people. His dad calling from one of the planes to say how much he loves his wife and two sons. Seconds later, the plane exploding. Howie following his big brother into an army to get back at the people who killed his dad, then spending grueling months training, and more grueling months in a mountainous place called Afghanistan. Now he’s got orders to go to another place—Iraq—and he doesn’t want to. He no longer believes the fighting has anything to do with his dad. He thinks it’s being used to make some rich people richer. It’s his last day of leave and he’s desperate, angry.
“What time you leave tomorrow?” Rick asks, passing the rolledup weed to Howie. As a send-off, Rick brought him to a play put on by a local women’s college. A friend gave him the tickets, and Rick thought it would be fun, that maybe they’d meet some girls. But the play turned out to be about a hopeless wasteland at the end of the world, and it hit Howie a little too close to home.
“Too early,” is all Howie says, though. He looks at the asphalt beneath him and sucks so hard on the weed he begins to cough. “Shit!” he says, then passes the weed back to Rick. For a split second their fingertips make contact.
This experience is so intimate. So taken for granted.
Mesmerized by the wondrous phenomenon of touch, I zoom in closer, hovering between the two men. Rick’s posture stiffens.
He felt me! He felt me!
Then I realize that Rick was just reacting to an ugly scar on Howie’s inner forearm. He wants to ask Howie how he got it, but doesn’t. What does he think words are for? Swishing around in his mouth like mouthwash? Words are one of the primary tools you get in the Land of Forgetting. Why isn’t he using them? Howie needs to talk about the scar. How he tried to take his life, then lied to the doctor, saying it happened while training. And he needs to tell someone that if this is the way to avenge his dad, he’s not man enough to do it. And he needs to say he’s scared and doesn’t want to go, doesn’t think he should have to. If he said these things, I’ll bet Rick would quit feeling so guilty, quit thinking he’s betraying his friend by not joining the army too. What’s more, it might give him the opening to talk about his own life, admit that he’s having trouble finding reasons to get out of bed in the morning, admit that he feels like his life is going nowhere, that he hates his job at Jack’s Tires. Howie would love it if Rick would say these things! He wouldn’t feel like he was the only one who was lost and scared. But does either of them say anything? Does either of them use his words to confide in the friend who cares about him the most? Noooo. The knuckleheads just squat there using their mouths to suck on that weed.
Rick hands the smoked-down roll of weed back to Howie. “We should split.”
Howie takes a final suck, then, still holding the smoke in his lungs, squeezes out, “You gotta introduce yourself to her, man.”
Did he say “her?” Her who?
Rick looks around the Dumpster to the wooden door with its cast and crew sign.
Howie pinches out the roach, pockets it, and rocks onto his heels so his back is against the solid warm brick.
Who’s the her? Who’s the her? I want to scream.
Rick reaches down, picks up a bottle cap, and begins flipping it in the air like a coin. “Yeah right. ‘Uh, Hi. I loved the performance…’”
“You loved the performance?”
“What exactly about the performance did you love, Rick? The total depressingness of the language or the awesome lack of special effects? I mean, the fucking play was called Endgame. What were you thinking?”
They start laughing—hysterically. Howie bends over and hugs his arms to his chest, gasping, “I’m so glad you went out of your way to find us something uplifting to do on my last night home, man!”
“I told you,” Rick sputters, “I got the tickets for free!”
I ignore their immaturity and move on to what’s important. An actress? How absolutely perfect! Child of a musician father and actress mother; I’ll be nursed at late-night jam sessions, go to sleep to the sound of my mother reciting lines.
I dive into Rick’s memory to get a glimpse of my potential mom, but it’s hard to get an accurate read. All his memory has to offer are scenes from the play where she’s dressed in rags, her face covered in ashes. She’s playing an androgynous character named Clov who seems to have nothing better to do than hang on a broom and listen to some girl dressed as a lame old blind guy pontificate. Bor-ring! But, as much as I can make out, she is pretty. Tendrils of red hair peek from beneath her filthy cap. And her voice is captivating; even with such repetitive text she reveals subtle nuances, shifts the timbre, rhythm, and pitch. She’s not very tall, but I can live with that. She’s an actress!
Rick pulls his car keys from his pocket. “Let’s blow. This doesn’t feel right.”
Doesn’t feel right? I think. What are you talking about? You’d be perfect together!
Rick is feeling light-headed and wishes he hadn’t smoked so much weed. “You’re leaving tomorrow,” he says to Howie. “We should go party or play some music.”
Howie positions himself between Rick and the parking lot. “No, man. You’re staying.”
Howie gives him a meaningful look, then says, “Because you can.”
I couldn’t agree with him more. Listen to the guy, Rick. He’s right. You’re craving change. Change takes risk. Meet the girl! Fall in love! Have a baby! The desperation I feel as I screech out these unheard commands is excruciating. You’ve got to be my parents! You’ve got to!
READ THE REVIEWS FOR SPANKING NEW…
Spanky, the narrator of this delicious novel, is an unborn baby who can flit from one character’s thoughts and emotions to another’s—a storytelling perspective that, from a less able author, might have come off as a diaper-load of a gimmick. But Henderson, in only her second book, handles the unorthodox point of view with inventive style and charm.
Spanky’s parents-to-be are Nina, an aspiring actress without a role in sight, and Rick, a musician paying the rent changing tires in a garage. Nina’s circle of friends include fag florist Pablo and dyke diva Dink—who harbors an unrequited lust for Nina, and who eventually serves as Rick’s best man at a hilarious “Love Happening” wedding, standing in for his best friend Howie, killed in Iraq. These are just a few of a fabulous novel’s well-rounded characters, which also include Rick’s right-wing father, Nina’s censorious sister—and a queer dog. And, of course, Spanky—who thinks she’s going to be born a boy.
Already a “best” of 2010.
Sam Martino, Out in New Jersey
Spanking New is Hilarious and Poignant
Spanking New is a book that brings the fantasy of what happened before I was born, to life. If you have ever wondered what you were, or where you came from, Clifford Henderson gives you an interesting, oft times hilarious answer. The gender benders in this book are lovable characters, the most memorable being “Spanky” the “floating soul” that is looking to attach to his parents. When Spanky finally does manage to finagle a meeting of his soon to be parents Nina and Rick, the sparks fly, and all seems right with the world that he is about to enter, until Spanky finds out he is a girl! Other than being hilarious, this a poignant point of view, and makes for a fun and interesting read.
This is Clifford Henderson’s second novel, and it does not disappoint. I am happy to have discovered this writer, as she is never dull, and lends much to the imagination. I look forward to a lifetime of reading her.
LGBT Coordinator, Muhlenberg College
Clifford Henderson has written a masterpiece in “Spanking New”. She explores the serious issues of our day such as heteronormativity, heterosexism, homophobia and pro-choice in a humorous and non-threatening manner. The author’s use of the unborn as the storyteller generates an air of awe, wonder and hope regarding these important topics. Henderson’s clever exploration of her protagonists’ feelings leads the reader into a world where gender and identity are fluid. “Spanking New” should be a required reading for all gender and queer study courses.
While the author addresses serious issues, her book is fun, fun, fun! The playfulness, curiosity and fresh naivety as portrayed through the eyes of the storyteller is refreshing and often humorous. It is pure genius on Henderson’s part to write from this perspective. The protagonists are endearing and very human as you follow their struggles to navigate through life. The reader is able to sympathize with the antagonist’s feelings as well, in this richly developed exploration of human being’s struggles to make sense of their worlds.
READ A DESCRIPTION OF SPANKING NEW…